The Philosophy Of KANT: My Favorite Take-Aways


People, I think, accidentally suffocate the fire of Kant by concentrating too heavily on the gathered ash of his vocabulary. So, what I’d like to do in this post– as the capstone to my now-completed, three-year Self-Doctorate course– is to talk about the BIG IDEAS that underlie Kant’s cant. I’m going to use my own vocabulary, mostly, but will throw-in some of Kant’s more famous expressions (in bold lettering) here and there, so that the reader will have an easier time when they go to read Kant directly, and so that, when they hear about, or when they discuss, Kant’s ideas, his intimidating vocabulary won’t throw them off.

To my mind, Kant’s major contributions to philosophy are three:

1) Kant’s discussion of the relationship between the World Of Appearances v Underlying Reality (this relationship includes the mediation of the human Mind),

2) Kant’s discussion of his belief that we have an inborn Moral Law from which there is no escape, and,

3) although I find this a lesser contribution (and among his shakiest), Kant’s linkage of Aesthetic Appreciation with that Moral Law.

I’m not going to go into Kant’s philosophy of Aesthetics, as it boils down to just some smart guy’s opinion that Art is beautiful because its ordered into a unified whole.

To speak of Kant’s contribution to philosophy as a “Copernican Revolution” in thought (to quote Kant’s own modest words) has become by now traditional.  Before Copernicus, most people thought that the Sun revolves around an unmoving Earth. After Copernicus, most people eventually came to believe in the opposite situation… that the Earth revolves around the Sun (perhaps not the EXACT opposite situation since we believe that the Sun is also moving– but of course, all this is now also considered relative!).

Before Kant, most philosophers assumed that Space and Time were objectively real conditions of the Universe and that the human psyche simply responded to those conditions; but, similar to Copernicus, Kant flipped the accepted thinking on its head; he held that humans IMPOSED Space and Time, and the Universe, in a sense, had to respond to those impositions– that is, the World Of Appearances is GENERATED by the imposition of our constructs of Space and Time upon the Underlying Reality.

Other philosophies and religions had, of course, already explored the idea that our own perceptions are limited, that there is more to the World than our own senses can register and our own brains can comprehend. But before Kant, the main point of such thinking was the contention that there is probably a lot of the Universe that we are missing; after Kant, we began to consider, instead, all the Universe that we are CREATING.

Additionally, the belief in an inborn (or at least pre-established) and universal Moral Law has probably been around since the taboos of the earliest man-apes. However, by equating the construct of Moral Law with such constructs as Space and Time, Kant provided a new slant on an old idea. His TRANSCENDENTAL METHOD, explains Scruton, “relates the objects of knowledge to the capacities of the knower.” […] “Previous philosophers had taken nature as primary, and asked how our cognitive capacities could lay hold of it. Kant takes those CAPACITIES as primary.”

What excites me most about Kant’s thought is his discussion of the human PERCEPTION of Reality versus what is truly out there. Kant believed that humans can only appraise Appearances and not Underlying Reality. He does, however, seem to believe that an objective Reality actually underlies the perceptible World, but whatever that Ultimate Reality is, it lies outside Space and Time, and since human consciousness is dependent upon its self-made constructs of Space and Time, the fullest, truest Reality lies outside our ability to perceive or understand.

Sometimes it sounds as if Kant believed that there is direct relationship between entities of the Underlying Reality and the objects we perceive in the World Of Appearances. For instance, his correspondence contains the explanation that, “All objects that can be given to us can be conceptualized in two ways: on the one hand, as Appearances, on the other hand, as Things-In-Themselves.” Things-In-Themselves, or the Thing-In-Itself, are ways Kant speaks of the proposed and unknowable entities comprising the Underlying Reality.

Kant maintained that Appearances are ground in a fundamental and objectively real Reality. One of Kant’s students, J.S. Beck, felt that Kant’s intention was to propose a one-to-one correspondence between an object as it appears to us and its ultimate reality. For example, when we see a football, it may not actually appear as a football to us if we could see its total reality, but nevertheless, there is SOMETHING producing the appearance of a football there.

However, this post’s feature author Roger Scruton, an authority on Kantian thought, wrote that “there is no doubt that his [Kant’s] mind was not made-up about the matter,” and Kant’s vagueness or wishy-washiness concerning the relationship between Appearance and True Reality led to a “crucial ambiguity” in this area; frustratingly this also happens to be one of the most outstanding and fundamental areas of Kant’s philosophy. Scruton has come to the conclusion from his study of Kant’s writings that Kant conceived the Things-In-Themselves which comprise Ultimate Reality to be NON-ENTITIES– that is… they don’t really exist.

Says Scruton, “the Thing-In-Itself is not an entity, but a term standing proxy for the unrealizable ideal of perspectiveless knowledge.” Even Kant, himself, in some places seems to indicate that the idea of entities or somethings occupying the realm of Underlying Reality can only be used NEGATIVELY– that is, to talk about what we can NOT know.

As I’m not sure how we can speak of something which does not exist, I will allow the notion non-existing entities to lie where it falls.

On the other hand, Scruton concedes that the natural, most common reading, of Kant’s work is to assume that when Kant writes of the World Of Appearances versus Underlying Reality, he is imagining a situation in which real entities in the realm of Underlying Reality GIVE RISE –working in combination with the processes of the mind– to the objects perceived in the sensible World.

Kant frequently spoke of entities (real or unreal) in the realm of Underlying Reality as “Noumena“– defining such ethereals as entities which can only be THOUGHT-about (however vaguely) but never experienced. He contrasts Noumena with “Phenomena.” Phenomena, wrote Kant, are objects which have the possibility of being experienced.

An intriguing concept of Kant’s which gets little attention is his proposition that the Underlying Reality is home to some SOMETHING which undergoes transformations that give rise to the changes we see in the World Of Appearances; this SOMETHING– perhaps something akin to Pure Energy?– never itself fundamentally alters itself. It is something eternal (as in, beyond Time) and unchanging. Scruton thinks of this proposal of Kant’s as a type of “Conservation Of Energy” rule, and that the changeless SOMETHING possesses “laws of transformation” which “govern the whole of Nature.”

The philosopher Hume gets a lot of credit for, through his own writings, spurring -on Kant to create his great philosophy. However, it was Leibniz who most anticipated, and probably more specifically influenced, the philosophy of Kant.

Kant came to believe that the human mind imposes its own point of view upon the Universe– a relative, and therefore non-objective perspective. Kant went so far as to claim that our point of view DETERMINED the World (at least, that is, the World we know or perceive). It is impossible for someone to step outside his or her own point of view and to fully know the most-true, most-complete Reality underlying the World Of Appearances.

But even before Kant wrote, Leibniz was already writing about individualized points of view. These points of view– which came an an infinite number of unique perspectives– Leibniz called “monads.” Leibniz considered that the human soul was one type of monad. Scruton summarizes the Kant-relative aspects of monads as follows…

“The world consists of infinitely many individual monads, which exist neither in Space nor in Time, but eternally. Each monad is different in some respect from every other.” […] “The point of view of each monad is simply a way of representing its internal constitution; it does not represent the world as it is in itself. Each monad mirrors the world from its own point of view, but no monad can enter into real relation, causal or otherwise, with any other.” […] “By the principle of Pre-Established Harmony, the successive properties of every monad correspond to the successive properties of every other.” […] “Even Space and Time are intellectual constructs, through which we make our experience intelligible, but which do not belong to the world as such.”

Under Scruton’s intepretation of Leibnizian thought, most of the fundamental “Kantian” ideas concerning the nature of Reality are already present in Leibniz’s writings!

But returning to Kant’s take on the Universe, Kant pointed out that as soon as we grasp the idea of our having a Point Of View, we begin to create the idea of world as seen from NO Point Of View. However, Kant felt that it is impossible for the human mind to ever achieve a knowledge of Reality that is absolultely objective– that is, that comes without any point of view, which I suppose is, arguably, the same as saying that it would be a knowledge from EVERY point of view.

But perhaps we shouldn’t feel too frustated by this. Kant seems to imply that the human mind NEEDS to have the full perception of Reality interferred with, or filtered– otherwise we would not be able to comprehend anything at all. We may THINK we wish that we encountered no resistance in our quest for ultimate knowledge, but it could be that very resistance that allows us to navigate our lives. Kant uses the metaphor of the dove which… “cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that flight would be still easier in empty space”– having no idea, of course, that it is the very resistance of the air which enables it to remain airborne.

The World Of Appearances is the world that we know. What lies beneath it– if, as Kant proposes, anything does– is unknown to us, and says Kant, FOREVER unknowable to us.

Our known World consists of Phenomena. But Scruton informs us that there is confusion as to what precisely Kant had in mind when he spoke of Worldly Phenomena… Are they true objects which are at least partially perceivable to us– or are they, instead, mere “mental representations?”

Kant described Phenomena as all those things which are, actually or at least potentially, perceivable by the mind. Scruton believes that Phenomena would thus include particles of the atomic world, which we may not can actually see, but which still have reality in Time and Space. What becomes interesting to think about– and this an area which Scruton does not get into– is that some modern physists, those who have delved deeply into matters subatomic– contend that the very smallest particles may NOT possess the normal characteristics of Phenomena existing in Time and Space– such as the characteristic of obeying Causality. Could it be that we are touching the edges where Phenomena meet Noumena? I doubt it… but it’s interesting to consider.

By the very act of our experiencing the World, our minds impose structure upon it. Scruton explains the situation as follows…

We receive simple sensations– but we immediately, as we are receiving the sensations from the world– give structure to these sensory inputs. In this way, simultaneous with the reception of sensory data, we are using our “imagination” to “attribute to our experience a CONTENT.” If we consider the received sensory data as the FORM of the World, it is our Imagination which injects the Form with Content, and thus provides us UNDERSTANDING. Knowledge then, states Scruton, has a “double origin” — perception and Understanding.

Without the Content we add to our sensations, we would have no grounds for making judgments– there would just be a very large amount of seemingly unrelated sensations bombarding us. Writes Scruton, “until tranformed by mental activity, all sensation is without intellectual structure, and therefore provides grounds for no belief.”

And remember… the content or structure that our minds provide for incoming perceptions is simultanous with, or intrinsically and inseparable part of, the perception. “Experience CONTAINS intellectual structure,” explains Scruton. “It is already organized in accordance with the ideas of Space, Time, Substance, and Causality” when we apprehend it. Knowledge comes from the synthesis of raw perception and intellectual organization.

“I do not lay hold of my experience and then subject it to synthesis,” writes Scruton. “For the very act of laying-hold presupposes that this synthesis has occurred.”

Therefore, the MODE of apprehension becomes part of the experience… The medium IS (part of) the message. Every thing we know of the world comes with the “indelible marks” of our personal point of view. All our knowledge is CONDITIONED knowledge– filtered, changed, or limited by our perception-apparatus. If we could achieve a view of the world UNCONDITIONED, then we would have knowledge “untainted by perspective”– a knowledge Kant avows is impossible.

Our minds take the sensations we perceive and place them in what Scruton calls an “ordered perspective.” To provide this order, Kant proposed that the human mind approaches the World under the constraints of the certain FORMS OF THOUGHT. These Forms Of Thought give the World a certain COLOR, if you will. Scruton explains that there is a definite “repertoire of concepts contained within the Understanding, itself,” and this mental repertoire “defines the forms” of the minds activity.

Kant calls these approaches –or thought-forms, or concepts– Categories. He claims there are twelve Categories which shape experience (see second paragraph of this great, concise synopsis HERE ); however, only a few of these Categories are really ever talked about today. These include Categories such as Causation and Enduring Substance. To tell the truth, I think Kant was stretching his list a bit so that he would wind up with Four Groups, each with exactly three Categories each. That was his style– he liked order.

Scruton tells us that Kant worked backward from individual objects in the World to ever broader categories of experience. Eventually, Kant felt that he had arrived at twelve general Categories which take into account all judgments we can make about objects of experience.

The Categories are applicable to ALL Phenomena, but are NOT relevant to Noumena (entities of the thought-world and/or of Ultimate Reality). Anything which can be experienced will have each and every one of the twelve modes of thoughts (“Categories”) applied to it as part of our experiencing process.

I find it strange that Kant leaves Space and Time OUTSIDE the twelve mind-imposed Categories of mental-processing. I have to wonder if they just didn’t fit neatly into his balanced scheme of four sets of three Categories. He seems to view both Space and Time as internal constructs, as Leibniz did before him.

However, Kant does indeed provide reasons for placing Space and Time into their own special class. According to Scruton, Kant recognized Space and Time as having no PLURALS– unlike the 12 Categories of mental-organizing; that is, you can have multiple Causes and multiple Substances, but you can’t have multiple realms of Time or of Space. I don’t quite buy this distinction since some of the 12 Categories are arguably similar in application (for instance, “Negation”… either Negation is present or it’s not, right? At least it’s arguable).

Kant thought of Space as an order imposed upon the external world, and of Time as an order imposed upon our inner, mental world. According to Scruton, Kant believed that Time– though it is something we mentally impose– is based as well upon “the reality of an objective sequence” in our environment. Says Scruton, “it is only in reference to that sequence and to the enduring objects that structure it, that I can identify my own perception.” So, to me, it sounds like Kant wants to have it both ways– Time is an internal construct which we use to help us process Reality– BUT it is also based upon objectively existing regularities occuring in the Underlying Reality.

Scruton goes on to say that Kant felt that Space and Time are “ideal” AND “empirically real.”

Space and Time seem to me to be even more fundamental than the other Categories, for upon them some of the Categories depend– such as Substance (depends upon Space, at least as we know it) and Causation (try to imagine Causation without Time!).

Space and Time are both “antimonic.” Scruton defines “Antimony” as… “the peculiar fallacy which enables us to derive both a proposition and its negation from the same premise.” In the case of Space and Time– it is difficult for us to contemplate that either of them could… 1) have boundaries or 2) NOT have boundaries. As Kant said, a “completed infinity” is an absurdity. Kant also remarked that the idea of a “First Cause” is absurd (for what created the First Cause?)– but that it is equally absurd to think of NOT having one.

Causation also plays a role in the development of our Unity Of Consciousness (what could, I think, also be called our “Ego,” though Kant calls it, in his typical clunky fashion, the Unity Of Apperception). We are who we are because of who we were. As Leibniz pointed out in his Law of Sufficient Reason: nothing is true without sufficient explanation. Putting a slightly more scientific spin on it, Scruton writes that “we discover how things really are only by finding causes for how they seem.”

Applying the law of Sufficient Reason to the continuation of the SAME Ego through Time, Scruton explains that “I endure only if my past explains my future.” […] “My unity requires my continuity.”

Scruton also describes how the Ego enters into causal relationships with the material world. According to this interpretation, nothing can “endure” unless it is “substantial.”

I’m personally not sure this contention is beyond doubt, but it is a starting point. From there, Scruton continues… “Nothing can be substantial unless it also enters into causal relations.” It is this entry into the Causal world– wherein one thing leads directly into another– that allows for the Unity of Being over Time, for one thing, such as a Soul or Ego, to continue-on as ONE THING… “Otherwise,” says Scruton, “there is no difference between genuine duration and an infinite sequence of momentary selves.” Things endure, states Scruton, because of the “thread of causal connection that unites their temporal parts.”

Scruton informs us that Kant disagreed with Descartes that self-awareness proves that the Self is a genuine object of consciousness. Kant apparently stated somewhere that the Ego or Mind could be merely a Property (Kant: “Accident“) produced by the body. The Ego could be no more than a perspective– not a true and substantial part of the World. As Scruton points out, there is a “gap” between surmising the Ego’s Unity Of Consciousness and declaring that we are Substance.

At the same time, Kant seems to have thought that one could not be skeptical about one’s own existence since only a self-conscious Being COULD be skeptical about its existence. Says Scruton, “the conditions that make skepticism possible also show it to be false.”

Also, Kant makes it clear elsewhere that the “I” has a presence in both worlds– the World Of Appearances AND the world of Underlying Reality. The “I” is in fact– like Space and like Time– an Antimony. “I” am a thing existing in this World of Phenomena and thus bound by the law of Causality, but “I” am also an entity at home in the realm of Underlying Reality, and thus Free– unbound by Space, Time, and Causality. As Scruton describes it, “we are one thing, but conceived under two contrasting aspects.” Kant was actually okay with this dichotomy, writing that… “there is not the smallest contradiction in saying that the Thing In Appearance (belonging to the world of sense) is subject to certain laws, from which the very same thing as a Thing In Itself is independent.”

One of Kant’s more interesting outlooks is that he considers the Universe and the Moral Compass as things equally real and awe-inspiring. He writes in the last section of his Critique Of Practical Wisdom: “Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more often and the more steadily we meditate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within.”

The Moral Law installed within us seems based upon what Kant calls “Practical Reason.” Practical Reason, as Kant defines it, is that line of thinking which tells us WHAT to do. Practical Reasoning is not used to predict or explain things. It cannot be used to determine truth or falsehood. Practical Reasoning issues imperatives; it is not concerned with Truth, but with activity– the correct activity.

Kant contrasts Practical Reasoning with “Pure Reasoning.” Pure Reasoning is the attempt to use only our rationality to form judgments; using Pure Reasoning, we attempt to move beyond empirical conditions. Kant felt that the attempt to go beyond the evidence of the real world and to arrive at judgments by logical proofs is doomed to failure. Some attempts to apply Pure Reasoning would be those tortured “proofs” purportedly arriving at “facts” about metaphysical subjects such as God or the Soul. When we attempt to reason beyond the empirical facts, we succumb to fallacy and to illusory arguments.

Eventually, Kant arrives at one line of Practical Reasoning which supercedes, or is more fundamental and widely applicable, than all the others lines. This highest level of Practical Reasoning he calls “The Categorical Imperative” (and the “The” is important, such all the Categories of thought-formation issue imperatives). The Categorical Imperative is, in Scruton’s words, applicable to all “rational agents” at all times, and rises above any individual’s “interests, desires, and ambitions” as well as “all the empirical conditions which circumscribe their actions.”

Scruton states The Categorical Imperative as follows: I should “act only on that maxim which I can at the same time will as universal law.”

The Categorical Imperative does not derive its authority from what is best or most desirable for us. It is above any particular circumstance. The Categorical Imperative does not contain an “if” (none of the Categories do). Its command is unconditional. Behaviors based upon the dictates of The Categorical Imperative do not change as interests or conditions change.

Kant states that, as a consequence of The Categorical Imperative, we must never treat others as a Means, but only as Ends in themselves.

Another consequence of The Categorical Imperative, according to Kant, is that we can act in freedom– as long as our behavior is compatible with the freedom of others. Their right to Freedom is no less valid than our own. Kant is adamant that, in his own words, “Every action is right if it or its maxim allows each person’s freedom of choice to coexist together with the freedom of everyone.”

In this way, one can see why Kant believed that every “Right” comes with a “Duty.” For instance, concerning Freedom, we have a Right to be Free, but this comes with the Duty to respect the Right to Freedom of everyone else. As Scruton puts it, “what gives reality to my Rights is your Duty to respect them.” …and… “I can claim Rights only if I am prepared to pay the price, which is the acceptance of the very same Duties that I impose upon you through my claim.”

It is entirely possible to act against The Categorical Imperative –and we often do in order to secure for ourselves some transient pleasure or apparent advantage– but when we do so, we feel the sting of Conscience at our disobedience to The Imperative which has been installed irradicably within our souls.

Lastly, we don’t have to worry about the consequences when it comes to following the dictates of The Categorical Imperative. It is not the effects of our behavior but our motivation or inclination that comes under its rule. The World is a complex place, and we can’t hope to predict all the consequences of our actions. As Kant wrote, “nothing can be called good without qualification except a good will.”


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